The Ground Opens Up

Much like their airline counterparts, Middle Eastern ground handling companies are expanding rapidly.

Despite cutbacks across the globe — in the fourth quarter 2008, OAG predicts a 7 percent reduction in capacity worldwide — the likes of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar are forging ahead with expansion plans.
The region had some $140 billion worth of new aircraft orders (around 700 planes) pre-Farnborough (Air Show) and was responsible for most of the $50 billion spent there. The aircraft will fuel a hunger for new destinations that doesn’t look likely to be sated any time soon.

Infrastructure is keeping pace. There are new airports or significant developments at Dubai, Doha (Qatar) and Abu Dhabi as well as at a host of smaller gateways. In all, there will be investment of approximately $50 billion and, by 2012, a total capacity of 320 million passengers per annum at the top 10 airports.

It bodes well for the ground handling companies. Usually state-backed and with a dominant market position, business is booming. True, some states are looking to introduce competition and there is a strong service ethic in the region but even so, many other ground handlers from around the world would be only too happy to swap positions for their low yield, highly-competitive arenas.

For example, Bahrain Airport Services (BAS) has a monopoly at the Kingdom’s international airport, hub of Gulf Air. The company offers everything from traditional ground support to catering and even an engineering school. While a strictly enforced regulatory framework ensures clients aren’t exploited, the robust local economy and strong home carrier translate into reliable traffic growth and a very healthy business.

Stiff competition
In fact, the ground support market is performing well enough for companies without BAS’s advantages to secure both market share at home and a foothold overseas.

Kuwait’s National Aviation Services (NAS), for example, is one of the few in the region with a domestic market largely untapped by an ailing airline and competition on its doorstep.

NAS began life in 2003, a joint venture between the Kuwait-owned PWC Logistics and Bahrain Airport Services. It had a single client in those days (KLM) but has since forged a formidable business despite having to compete against KASCO — the ground handling arm of Kuwait Airways Corporation.

Exactly how stiff that competition is remains a matter of conjecture but NAS achievements should be seen in the regional context of powerful, nationalized monopoly companies. Its progress mirrors that of low-cost airlines such as Kuwait-based Jazeera.

In 2007, NAS catered for more than 1.25 million passengers, around 40 percent of the total at Kuwait International Airport (KIA). Excluding Kuwait Airways’ customers, the figure rises to 62 percent — and that for a company just four years old at the time.

NAS clients are supplied with a host of services, part of a pledge to fulfil just about every need — the proverbial one-stop-shop. The ground work — unloading and servicing aircraft — benefits from the latest equipment, well-trained employees and constant monitoring — but the real added value can be seen in other product features.

The company’s own check-in zones at the airport, utilizing SITA’s CUTE (Common Use Terminal Equipment) system, are a case in point. It streamlines processing and keeps airline costs down — always a welcome move and nigh on imperative in the current aviation environment.

Then there is the Pearl Lounge, an elegantly decorated executive space with all modern conveniences that is available to everyone for a small charge — not just the business and first-class passengers of client airlines.

Another innovative product is Hala Kuwait, which offers arrival, departure and VIP services. The arrivals package goes as far as a presentation bouquet of flowers if required, not to mention the usual escort through immigration and assistance with baggage and the onward journey.

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